Newsweek magazine, this year in conjunction with its sister publication The Daily Beast, has just published its annual list of America’s 50 “most influential” rabbis. It’s Newsweek’s fifth such list but the first time that a woman — writer Abigail Pogrebin — has been directly involved in the selection, which no doubt explains why the number of women on the list has more than doubled. This year, 13 women made the list; that’s up from 6 last year.
The Newsweek list has come under fire in years past for including a paucity of women and for ranking rabbis at all (though, to be sure, rabbis who make the list often include their ranking in their official bios, and I’ve heard a few of them mention the distinction when being interviewed about something totally unrelated).
Interestingly, six of the seven women who were new to the list were on The Sisterhood 50 last year — a list compiled by Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner in response to the shortage of female rabbis mentioned. Pogrebin says that she had The Sisterhood 50 “very close by, always,” when working on Newsweek’s rabbi rankings. “Other lists are instructive and their own snapshot of a perspective,” she told The Sisterhood. “I wanted to very much consult what was already out there, and some of those lists were intended to be a corrective.”
My colleagues and I like to joke that Newsweek’s publishing of an annual “most influential rabbis” list makes about as much sense as the Forward publishing an annual list of “most influential newsweeklies,” which, of course, we don’t.
In a more sensible move, the Forward’s women’s issues blog, The Sisterhood, last week put out an influential rabbis list of its own. Ours featured only women rabbis, a demographic that makes up only a small percentage of Newsweek’s list. Out of the 50 rabbis chosen by Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton and his friend Gary Ginsberg for Newsweek, only six were women.
Since 1972, when Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained its first female rabbi — paving the way for the ordination of women at the flagship Reconstructionist and Conservative seminaries, in 1974 and 1985, respectively — America’s rabbinic seminaries have ordained more 1,000 female rabbis. So many of these rabbis are playing disproportionately large roles in changing lives and communities, it was a challenge to choose just 50 (plus five in Israel) for The Sisterhood 50 list.
Newsweek is just out with its 4th annual list of what it deems to be “the 50 most influential rabbis in America.”
This year, as last, few women have made the cut and all but one are in the bottom half of the list.
The first woman to appear — Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, the president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis — comes in at position number 17. Still, it’s one higher than her ranking on last year’s list, when she was also the highest-placed member of the female rabbinate.
In all, six female rabbis were included this year. With one more than last year, at least there’s an upward trend, even if it is slow.
The others dubbed worthy of the 2010 list are Rabbis Sharon Kleinbaum of New York’s GLBTQ synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Sharon Brous, founder of the progressive Los Angeles congregation Ikar, Naomi Levy, a well-known speaker and founder of L.A. outreach organization Nashuva, and Jill Jacobs, a social justice visionary and rabbi-in-residence at the Jewish Funds for Justice.
Over the past year I have been researching a book on the state of marriage today, known mostly as the clinical-sounding “companionate” marriage. I have been looking at the way today’s marriages differ from the marriages of previous generations, how it seems laden with expectations, and yet is wonderfully fluid and democratic. During this time I have also been navigating my own young marriage, carving out my role in the partnership, and watching my husband carve out his.
It is due to both of these experiences that I find Newsweek’s “The Case Against Marriage,” a polemic against matrimony by Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison, to be both silly and often wrong.
For starters, they begin their essay with a critique of the thick cream-colored envelopes that fill their mailboxes during the early summer, marking the beginning of the extravagant wedding season to come. Sure, weddings can seem interchangeable and rife with conspicuous consumption. But weddings and marriage aren’t the same — in fact, in many ways they have little to do with one another, and the most wedding-ready brides can often be the least marriage-ready wives. My husband and I went out of our way to think about marriage when prepping for our nuptials, and to not become distracted by flowers and cake.
Newsweek magazine is out with its annual list of what it deems the 50 most influential rabbis in the country. As usual, women are a tiny number of those selected by the three entertainment-industry figures: the heads of Sony Pictures, News Corp. and Jewish Television Network Productions — all men, and all based in Los Angeles. For those of us in the Jerusalem of the Diaspora — and by that I mean Brooklyn, or at least New York City — some of the choices may seem biased toward the left coast and the gender of the selection committee members.
You can see the complete list and their criterion and points-rating system here.
You may notice that there are just 5 women deemed important enough to have made the cut — that’s only 10 percent. And yet, it’s an improvement over last year, when there were just three women out of the 50 rabbis chosen.
To be sure, women are a minority among rabbis in their respective movements.
In the Reform movement, which began ordaining women in 1972, women make up 30% to 35% of working rabbis, says Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.
In the Conservative movement, which began ordaining women in 1983, women make up about 12% of Rabbinical Association members, says Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the RA’s incoming executive vice president.
Nonetheless, both said, there are more female rabbis doing important, visible work than is obvious from the list authors’ choices. “It’s pretty sad that they could only find five women, and it reflects the limited range of their vision,” says Rabbi Ellenson. You can see more about her organization here.
Rabbi Schoenfeld, who takes the helm of the RA in July, noted that three of the five women who made the list — Rabbis Sharon Brous (ranked #31), spiritual leader of the L.A. congregation Ikar, Naomi Levy (#35), who writes about spirituality and liturgy, and Jill Jacobs (#48), with the Jewish Funds for Justice, are Conservative rabbis.
The other two women are Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (#18), incoming head of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum (#25), a Reconstructionist rabbi who leads the gay and lesbian synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Taking the top three spots on this year’s list are Rabbis David Saperstein, who runs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Marvin Hier, who is Orthodox and runs the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Mark Charendoff, who has Orthodox rabbinic ordination and runs the Jewish Funders Network. Said Charendoff: “I’m not sure I understand how the list gets put together, it’s not like we’re interviewed about it. I really couldn’t say anything about why someone is on it or not, or high or low. Last year I was on the list for the first time, and I was incredulous last year, so I wasn’t shocked I was on it this year but I was certainly surprised at being so high up.”
The very idea of ranking rabbis rankles Rabbi Schonfeld, though. “Picking 50 and then putting them in an order is not consistent with the sacred work we do,” she said. “I don’t start from the place where the list starts.”
At the end of the day, the list reflects only the point of view of the three men who assembled it, says Rabbi Ellenson. “I don’t think there are any criterion for making the list beyond who these guys know.”